Written by Bill Leebens


I recently had an interesting conversation with a Very Famous Audio Engineer. I asked about his background, how he grew up, and the factors that made him choose his career.

He laughed and shook his head, and said, “I know there are people who can’t live without music. For them, music is everything. I’m not one of those people. I’m a sound guy, not a music guy.”

I wasn’t sure I bought his comment at the time, and having spoken since then with people who know the VFAE well, I’m convinced it was somewhat disingenuous.

However, it did make me think about my own background, and how and why I’ve ended up in the audio biz, with dozens of talented musicians as friends. I’m grateful that an offhand comment prompted me to reflect upon my own evolution.

My conclusion? I had no say in the matter. My obsession with music was inevitable.

It’s funny how nostalgia tends to present our lives in soft-focus, as though a theatrical scrim had been placed in front of the harsh glare of reality. My early years were not exactly rosy, but certain moments seem straight out of It’s A Wonderful Life.

My family had a Kimball spinet piano, in the ugly light finish that was inexplicably popular in the ’50s and early ’60s: darker than a blonde finish, lighter than fruitwood (whatever THAT was). My mother had sung with a few local big bands in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and would sing show tunes in a robust alto, pounding the keys with a fury that spoke of pent-up rage. My sisters and I would sometimes stand around the piano and sing multipart harmonies to the whole damned Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook, as Mom thumped the keys.

Even today, I am embarrassingly familiar with the songs of South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. I have a mortal fear of being caught singing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” in public.

That’s normal—right?

Oddly enough, I have no recollection of my brother ever joining in those sessions—and aside from Mom, he was the only one of us who was ever paid to perform as a musician. He was likely too cool for that: in high school, Chuck was lead singer of a band called The Dimensions—and they weren’t terrible. They practiced in the basement of our fortress-like house and played local teen clubs and events in southern Minnesota. Chuck was able to mingle with the semi-famous; I remember being dragged out of bed one Sunday morning to go have breakfast with The Castaways, largely remembered for their regional hit, “Liar, Liar”.


[Gotta love that gogo dancer. “Liar, Liar” was on Soma records— which we took to mean SOuthern MinnesotA, but was actually “Amos” backwards, after owner Amos Heilicher. The label started in the ’50s with polka records and a few regional hits for Bobby Vee, These days, most associate it with “Liar, Liar”, or The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”, recorded on Garrett Records, but distributed by Soma. But I digress.]

Chuck was responsible for introducing me to the finer things in life, as seen by a 16-year-old in 1964: Rock ‘n’ roll, hot rods, and semi-naked females (courtesy of Playboy). He had—and mostly still has—a near-photographic memory for statistical trivia, able to recite career stats of dozens of baseball players and label info from who knows how many records: ” ‘How High the Moon’, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Capitol Records, silver printing on purple label, F1451, 45 rpm; CL1451, 78 rpm.”

Not surprisingly, later in life, Chuck managed stores for the Discount Records chain.

Along about that same time, my Grandma—Mom’s mom, who had rarely ever shown tolerance for me, much less actual interest—gave me a pocket-sized transistor radio, AM, of course. This meant that I could listen on my own to local station KAUS, which played mostly rock at night. At bedtime, Chuck’s hefty wooden RCA “portable” radio would be tuned to WLS. Far off in Chicago, WLS was a 50,000 watt clear channel station, and the flatlands of the midwest allowed their signal to reach far and wide. During the winter, snowstorms would make the signal drift, and whistle.


I’d play the piano by ear, occasionally taking piano lessons, but never sticking with them like my diligent sister Pat. She survived the harsh corrections of nuns who would whack her knuckles with a ruler if her hands didn’t bridge properly.

After moving to Carbondale, Illinois, I took another crack at piano lessons, riding my bike Saturday mornings to the teacher’s house. A few doors down was the dome home of Bucky Fuller, whom I always hoped to see outside—but never did. Pat, diligent as always, had the same teacher, and stuck with it. I can still hear her practicing the opening of the Revolutionary Etude, over and over, for a recital. Such a hard worker (a child psychiatrist, she still is).

Time went on. In junior high I sang in chorus with a future multiple Grammy winner, played washboard in a jugband with a future award-winning composer. We saw Blood, Sweat & Tears and other acts at the SIU Arena. Outdoor concerts featured Chuck Berry and Illinois natives Rotary Connection and REO Speedwagon.

In high school, my best friend’s dad was head of the university’s music department, so we went to all manner of free concerts, and colloquiums that featured musicians like John Hartford. I followed my brother into frequent record-buying, favoring Frank Zappa, Harry Nilsson, and The Move.

As a high school sophomore I worked at the high school radio station, manning a couple Gates turntables and an ancient Western Electric board. I started selling stereo equipment for a number of mail-order wholesalers, and got a job at a radio station at the university, as a news-reader. I simply told them I was “a sophomore”.

Hey, I was big for my age. For any age, really.

My brother moved back home and I had access to his thousands of records, and his stereo. I never put my fingers on the grooves of a record, and always put them back in their inner sleeves and jackets. I was in the high school production of My Fair Lady, with that same future Grammy winner. I saw Paul Simon, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley. I started driving to visit stereo dealers in St. Louis. I sat on the front stoop of a girl I loved and sang for her—“Reason to Believe” was her favorite.

And so it went. And here I am.

Like I said: I had no say in the matter. I never had a chance.

[Asteroid image courtesy of NASA.]

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